Diet is a hot topic in running, but a mess of conflicting information out there can make it a very confusing. Hopefully this article gives a more practical view on what and how to eat to keep you on top form.
What’s the best diet for running and performance
The age-old question.
We hear about all sorts of new diet fads and perfect recovery foods on an almost weekly basis—I wonder if it’s perhaps the favourite topic of running blogs worldwide!
But the reality is that the human body can thrive and perform on a wide variety of different food intakes. Going back to our hunter-gatherer roots, look at the Inuit, living on over 90% (and sometimes even 100%!) animal products; the San bushmen’s diet – consisting of over 50% the starchy Mongongo nut, or the seafaring Bajau traditionally existing almost exclusively on fish and other seafoods (Milton, 2000).
And before you say it’s all down to genetics, remember that we have elite western athletes in all disciplines at opposite ends of the dietary spectrum too. Think of Scott Jurek’s incredible vegan performances, versus the high-fat, high-animal diet of 2012 Western States winner Timothy Olsen. And then there’s the enormous junk food expedition diets of Appalachian Trail record holders such as Karl Meltzer and Karel Sabbe.
In fact, when it comes to running, the only thing that really seems to be critical is to make sure you eat and drink enough!
The joys of the aid station (image from runtothefinish.com)
Are foods inherently ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’?
The media is wrong here.
No food is inherently healthy or unhealthy. There’s no single ‘healthiness’ scale that each can be put on. In reality each food is healthy and unhealthy depending on the situation and aim of the individual. For example, while junk foods clearly aren’t ideal in daily life, they’re actually about the best thing in a race, providing easily digestible carbohydrates in large quantities, and because energy demand is so high, they won’t have any impact on heart disease, diabetes or anything else.
The same goes for calories. A high calorie food isn’t inherently bad, it just needs to match the demands of the eater. Not eating enough to replace expended calories is often far more damaging to performance than having a bit of extra weight.
In both situations, a doughnut is arguably far more ‘healthy’ than a carrot—the latter is nutritionally deficient for the situation. Equally, while an overweight man shouldn’t be eating steak after steak, red meat may be a highly beneficial addition to the diet of a growing and menstruating teenage girl. An example can be found for any and every food conceivable. Just to be obnoxious, the recovery benefits of brazil nuts are rather lost on someone with a severe nut allergy.
Now, most of this all sounds obvious, but how often are we lured into demonising specific foods and putting new fad ingredients up on pedestals? Every food type has a place, and it’s high time we reframed our perspective on ‘healthy’ with respect to food.
Don’t listen to the media
Never listen to the media on diet…
Even if they haveinterpreted the research correctly, many journal articles are biased by who funds them (food companies for example), even if just in which results get published and which don’t. Remember that you can make any data say something or nothing with the right statistical manipulation.
Take for example the many studies that correlate veganism, vegetarianism or even high-fat diets as with health, performance or lack of certain diseases. The thing is, most only test against the general public, not each other. Obviously a vegan or ‘paleo’ diet will be better than the standard western diet, simply because they’re caring about what they eat! That’s no proof that plant-based or high-fat is the cause!
Obviously that’s not to say that dietary research isn’t important, but if you’re going to dig into it you need to go beyond the media reports.
Remove the elephant before catching the mice
Forget antioxidants, superfoods and performance/recovery supplements. If these add a stone to the summit cairn of your health and performance, then the issues of sugar, processed carbohydrates and over/under-eating form the mountain itself.
Remove the elephant before chasing the mice: you need to address the big players first, and frankly there’s no point obsessing or even thinking about the little adjustments or additions until you do. It’s like spending lots of money on the best kit available without bothering to do any training—it’s not going to help performance.
Even the best kit in the world just isn't going to help...
Some general pointers
So ultimately, it’s about balance: consistently meeting the right nutritional needs at the right time. But it’s not as hard as it sounds. Ignore the fads and fine-toothed research. Focus on the big players and keep it simple.
Unsurprisingly, the factors that actually make a major difference are those you were taught in primary school:
1) Eat whole, real, unprocessed foods and reduce regular consumption of sugars and other processed carbohydrates (white flours, breads and pastas, etc.).
2) Keep your diet balanced in terms of both food variety and macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats).
3) Follow the 80:20 rule. As with training, consistency beats absolutes any day: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
4) Eat to your needs: calories in versus calories out; protein after muscle degradation; high glycaemic index after energy-draining workouts (now’s the time to eat all that white breads and pasta!); low glycaemic foods the rest of the time.
5) Drink! And not the fun kind. Hydration is vitally important for runners – not just during performance, but also for effective recovery.
6) Forget macro ratios and the finer qualities of certain foods until you’re perfect on all the above – there’s just no point.
Final thoughts: The pizza and wine study
Health (and obviously performance too) is dependent on a massive web of factors. Diet is not always the main one, and acting as though it is can actually be unhealthy.
I can’t find it now, but a number of years ago I read a study that compared two groups: one ate ‘healthy’ foods, while the other made the most of pizza and wine. At the end of the study the second group actually measured up better on many of the health indicators tested.
The researchers concluded that the fulfilment and positive psychological state of the pizza group had a larger effect on health than diet did, when compared to the cleaner eating but less happy ‘healthy’ group.
Once again we see the same in our hunter-gatherer friends: ‘A natural diet and high levels of physical activity clearly contribute to the enviable health of hunter-gatherers […] but something else is also at play: a lifestyle that fosters positive mental health.’ (Susan Gallagher, Duke Global Health Institute)
Remember, food is a central factor in our enjoyment of life for a multitude of personal and social reasons. Over-obsessing and worrying about it too much can cause more damage than the odd pizza.
‘Performance in endurance sports is affected by a variety of factors, including exercise-training habits, nutrition and other lifestyle components.’ (Bouchard & Lortie, 1984)
Bouchard, C., & Lortie, G. (1984). Heredity and Endurance Performance. Sports Medicine, 1(1), 38-64.
Milton, K. (2000). Hunter-gatherer diets-a different perspective. Am J Clin Nutr, 71,665-672.